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Bush speaks his mind

Middle East Times Editorial, 17.01.08

U.S. President George W. Bush may have trouble getting things done. He has no such trouble speaking his mind, however tortured the English in which he does so. He was the first American president to speak of a Palestinian state, back in 2001. It is true that he never used the term again until recently, but on his just completed Middle East tour he has been on a roll.
It's worth taking a look at what Bush called for publicly while in Israel and the future Palestine. "Palestinian state" returned to his vocabulary as he called for one that is "viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent," or as he put it at a press conference in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "Swiss cheese isn't going to work when it comes to the outline of a state."
He called the Israeli occupation of the West Bank an "occupation" and said it must end, speaking no more than the plain truth, but a big step nevertheless in this diplomatic minefield. He said the Israelis must stop settlement building and dismantle illegal outposts. He proposed compensation for Palestinian refugees, a first for his administration.
Formerly a reflexive defender of Israeli policy, now he is ready to offer criticism. He stressed the need for strengthening Palestinian institutions as part of establishing a viable state, adding that Israelis "ought to help, not hinder, the modernization of the Palestinian security force." After his motorcade passed unstopped through an Israeli checkpoint on its way to Ramallah, Bush acknowledged the frustrations they cause. "They create a sense of security for Israel; they create massive frustration for the Palestinians."
There are plenty of issues on which Bush offered no specifics: the status of Jerusalem; the borders of the new Palestinian state, which he said would have to recognize "the new realities," i.e. large Israeli settlements, particularly around Jerusalem; the details of refugee compensation. All these would have to be worked out between the two parties. But Bush has been more explicit from a public platform about major aspects of a settlement than any previous U.S. president.
He has pushed the two sides to move the process forward, however difficult it may be. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met just twice after the November meeting in Annapolis, the second time, like students rushing to finish homework at the last minute, the day before Bush's arrival in the region. Now he is holding their feet to the fire, and with the appointment of Lt. Gen. William M. Fraser as mediator between the parties has placed the United States at the heart of the process.
There is plenty of commentary saying that all this is too little and too late. Perhaps they are right. This is a region where best efforts have failed more often than not. But the parties are speaking to each other on the final issues. It may not work, but then ask yourself, "What's the other plan?" For now the Bush initiative is the only game in town.